Sioux Falls, SD -- How do you knock off a giant? Just ask the No. 14 Syracuse women's basketball team after an improbable comeback knocked off one of the nation's biggest powerhouses and launched the team into their first Elite Eight in program history.
"We understand South Carolina is a great team," said Syracuse head coach Quentin Hillsman. "We knew we weren't favored; we had a 7 percent chance to win. That was the whole thing. We just said, ‘We're just going to go and play basketball.'
"They can give us the 7 percent, but we were 100 percent confident if we played our game we had a chance to win the basketball game."
The Orange started off solid with an 8-4 lead over the No. 3 South Carolina Gamecocks in the Sweet 16 round of the NCAA Women's Basketball Regional at the Denny Sanford PREMIER Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota.
Orange juniors Brittney Sykes and Alexis Peterson led the charge with the inaugural field goals on a Gamecocks team fueled by their third consecutive Sweet Sixteen appearance. Fellow junior Briana Day tallied seven total rebounds in just the first quarter, setting Syracuse up for a challenge on a team once thought to be the nation's best of the year.
"What I saw today was just a team who's been through so much really just pull together," Peterson said after her third consecutive 20-point game. "We never got down. We closed it to 10. We knew if we could stay within striking distance, we had a chance. I thought today, over any other game, we really stuck together, and we never gave up on each other."
South Carolina trudged deep into foul trouble in the first quarter after seniors Khadijah Sessions and Tiffany Mitchell each racked up two, a rarity for a Dawn Staley-coached team, whose discipline is nothing less than legendary. Their substitutions gave heightened responsibilities to sophomore A'ja Wilson and senior Tina Roy, who finished the game with 15 and 17 points, respectively.
"Obviously, we're disappointed that we don't get to continue our season," Staley said. "Syracuse did a great job at executing the game plan for 40 minutes. I thought us getting into foul trouble; we could not in the first half overcome that. It just kind of stagnated us. Even though we did get the lead, we were just off. We were just not in sync."
Syracuse finished the first quarter up by one point. But that's when the Orange woke a sleeping giant, on both sides of the ball, and South Carolina senior Tina Roy downed back to back three's on a 6-point swing before the end of the first half.
The Gamecocks launched a full attack led by sophomore Wilson, Roy and junior Alaina Coates, who led the team with 18 points, while Roy sank a total of five 3-pointers. Offensively, the Orange couldn't seem to respond and defensively, the Orange couldn't seem to keep up.
However, what could be taken as hesitation in the Orange's offense turned to patience, and Syracuse began to take full advantage of a defensive lull from South Carolina.
With the help of two 3-pointers from Syracuse's Brianna Butler with minutes left in the fourth and Peterson's entire 26-point performance, the Orange executed their game plan, rallying back from a 13-point deficit with three minutes left in the game.
"We weren't matching their threes," Hillsman said. "We're big about matching threes; we have to at least match the other team's threes. I said, ‘If we're not going to match their threes, we're not going to match them.' I think in the second half, (Butler) was four for six behind the arc. She was amazing.
"We don't win that game without her, and she's been that way her entire career."
Syracuse knocked off South Carolina by a final score of 80-72, ending on a 6-2 run to boost their overall record to 28-7 on the season. Before tonight, South Carolina had only lost to one other team: No. 1 the University of Connecticut Huskies.
Syracuse advances to the Sioux Falls Regional championship game held at 2:30 p.m. on Sunday against the winner of (3) Ohio State and (7) Tennessee.